As the number one single in both the UK and US this week has been Old Town Road by Lil Nas X, a rap song about horses, it seems that hip hop and country music are finally ready to saddle up together. If the idea sounds like a hideous novelty hybrid, maybe Faye Webster, a 21-year-old singer-songwriter from Atlanta, can make it more palatable.
Head to YouTube, or her two London shows at the end of this month, to find her covering Cheap Thrills by Atlanta rapper Father, strumming a guitar and singing lines such as, “Playing Cupid’s Theme with your G-string” in a restrained, angelic voice. She released her last album, a self-titled collection from 2017, on Awful Records, the first singer on an underground hip hop label that has also put out records by less delicate characters including Slug Christ, Stalin Majesty and Big Baby Scumbag.
Father appears on Webster’s third album, Atlanta Millionaires Club, out this month, rapping over the mellow R&B of Flowers. Otherwise, it’s an album characterised by yearning pedal steel guitar, lonesome vocals and a sound that sits in the same country-soul corral as Dusty Springfield’s Memphis recordings and current acts such as Natalie Prass and Jenny Lewis.
Maybe this is where you naturally end up, sonically, when your grandfather is a bluegrass musician, your mother is a fan of western swing music from a small town in Texas and you grew up in the city that spawned rap giants including Outkast, Future, Migos and Gucci Mane. “So many of my songs are so different when you listen to them outside the record, but when you listen to it as a whole, it makes sense,” she says.
It hits a musical sweet spot for me, anyway – hers is probably my favourite album of the year so far. I love her self-deprecation – “I should get out more,” she repeats on Room Temperature, while on Jonny, she laments the fact that, “My dog is my best friend and he doesn’t even know what my name is” – and I love the small narrative details she fits into her songs. On Kingston, it’s not “Baby I love you,” it’s “He said, ‘Baby’ – that’s what he called me – ‘I love you.’”
She certainly looks cool enough to be part of the rap crowd when we meet in a Hoxton hotel restaurant, knees pulled up to her chest, wearing a baggy vintage sweater and a large visor that could be a bit Handmaid’s Tale if it was any bigger, but as it is makes her look like an old-time lady golfer. She’s busy trying and failing to get a Nintendo Switch to allow her to watch baseball games outside the US, so she can keep up with her beloved Atlanta Braves while on tour. Her dad has had season tickets since she was little. “We had four tickets a game and there are five of us in the family, so you really had to put your foot in the door.”
She was an early starter with music too. She can remember performing at her fifth grade graduation, age 11. She began writing her own songs soon after that, and released her debut album, Run & Tell, at 16. It includes a soulful, sophisticated acoustic cover of Bruce Springsteen’s Dancing in the Dark and sounds like it could have been written by someone twice her age.
Such precocity made her disinclined to continue with her education. “As soon as that pressure hit from adults about it being time to apply for colleges, that was when I thought, ‘Well this is all I’ve done. I guess I’ll just keep doing this.’ My parents were supportive, but gave me a year to support myself, otherwise I’d have to go back to school.”
Her mum’s was the musical side of the family, while her dad had worked as a photographer. She did end up spending a brief spell at Belmont University in Nashville, where she changed her degree from Songwriting to Graphic Design and started working with dad’s old Nikon film camera. “When I first started taking portraits, I wanted to put as much effort in as I would into a song,” she tells me. “I just like putting time into stuff.”
She developed a distinctive style in which the subjects’ clothes are a close match for the backdrop. It takes a lot of pre-planning, but has proved popular with the rappers with whom she associates. She has snapped Lil Yachty (who was a schoolfriend), Offset from the trio Migos, and Killer Mike from Run the Jewels, who allowed her to spend two hours painting his arms in an intricate black and gold pattern. “That was the picture that took the longest. I was thinking, ‘He hates me right now,’ but he was super cool.”
The photography proved successful enough to see her offered the opportunity to shoot an ad campaign for Nike. The company was rebooting its Air Max 97 shoe and wanted to work with creatives who were born in 1997. Pictures have had to take more of a backseat now that she has a new record deal, with the indie label Secretly Canadian, her best album to promote, and a tour for most of the summer. “I haven’t been able to focus on photography. I need so much effort and energy for my portraits. No time for that right now,” she says.
However, some of that aesthetic has spilled over into her music videos, which she directs herself. I recommend the clip for Kingston (named, not for Kingston Jamaica or even Kingston upon Thames, but for a small town west of Nashville) in which her pink dress is a perfect match for the flock of flamingos behind her. That was harder than it sounds, given that the birds tend to be a different shade depending on their diet. The flamingos in Atlanta are almost white, so she made the film in Florida. For the video for She Won’t Go Away, she managed to find clothes that match both a retro bicycle and a snake.
It’s all indicative of a meticulous approach that will pay off when the new album becomes, as it should, her breakthrough. Asked about her ambitions, it seems there isn’t another Taylor Swift hiding beneath that massive visor. “I just want people to hear my music. That’s all I care about,” she says. No doubt plenty will oblige.
Atlanta Millionaires Club is released on May 24 on Secretly Canadian. Faye Webster plays May 28-29, Bermondsey Social Club, SE16 (bermondseysocialclub.co.uk)